What Michael Crichton’s Last Book Tells Us About Scientists

What's to come?
Dec. 5 2011 10:34 AM

Michael Crichton’s Last Stand

What the Jurassic Park author’s posthumous novel Micro tells us about how scientists talk to the public.

Author Michael Crichton.
Author Michael Crichton in 2002

Photograph by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

Knowledge can be threatening, and technologies risky. Scientists overestimate their ability to control such dangers. Capitalists and entrepreneurs place profits before people. Industrial accidents wreak havoc at small and large scale. Criminals cover their tracks in the cruelest of ways. These are social facts, but rarely do authors weave them together with the relish that Michael Crichton does. Indeed, such storytelling—his forte, really—may be an important part of how we understand emerging technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

In Jurassic Park, Crichton stretched plausibility to the length of a diplodocus’ neck but kept it intact through a powerful narrative. Next, Crichton’s 2006 novel of animals enhanced by human genes, had a more technically realistic setup, but its plausibility was undermined by a weak narrative. In Micro, his new, posthumous novel completed by science writer Richard Preston (of The Hot Zone fame), both the technical setup and the narrative fail him. But even if readers end up shaking their heads more than biting their nails, through Micro they can still partake in a broad conversation about science, nature, and humanity.

The novel follows the Crichton formula: A visionary, entrepreneurial scientist succumbs to hubris. He pays, seduces, and deceives others into following his doomed vision. Nature, never fully domesticated, follows its course to predictably gruesome ends. The luckiest and fittest few survive, perhaps to engage in the semblance of romance.

In Micro, Vin Drake is the visionary running Nanigen Micro-Technologies, a firm that is bio-prospecting the Oahu rain forest for the pharmacological gold glimmering in the secretions of the fauna and flora. Drake’s twist on bio-prospecting is to shrink both robotic tools and their human handlers to half an inch tall with a high-intensity magnetic “tensor field.” This approach has risks: Shrinkage is reversible, but after about three days, little people suffer the “micro-bends” and bleed out. And Nanigen’s military division makes classified robots that, when shrunk by the tensor field, are lethally reminiscent of the nano-bots in Crichton’s much-maligned 2002 novel, Prey.

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Micro follows the plight of seven graduate students recruited from Harvard. But their junket to paradise goes to hell in a thimble when Drake shrinks them with the tensor field. Drake drops them into a plastic bag—something my 5-year-old does to anything half-an-inch tall with wiggly legs—and begins his attempts to dispose of them, starting with a snake in his vivarium. After their unlikely escape, the students must survive an arboretum, where wasps, ants, spiders, beetles, and other puny predators demonstrate the horrific indifference with which nature treats unarmored lumps of protein. It’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids meets Them!

Through the travails of the students, the reader is supposed to learn the mysteries of size-dependent phenomena and the chemistry of life at the arthropod scale. The students feel the meniscus atop a small pool of water and marvel at the same forces that allow a miniature all-terrain vehicle, like a gecko, to walk up a vertical cliff face.

These observations have a “gee, whiz, Mr. Science” familiarity to them, especially if you have visited “Underground Adventure” at Chicago’s Field Museum watched David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth and cable TV’s Monster Bug Wars.

Crichton’s contemporary concerns are multilayered: Humanity is literally losing touch with the natural world. Lack of direct experience renders children susceptible to the propaganda that nature can be controlled and the environment fully understood, even predicted. “If you have a chance to play in nature, if you are sprayed by a beetle, if you watch a caterpillar spin its cocoon,” Crichton explains in his introduction, “you come away with a sense of mystery and uncertainty.” You also “come to experience … its fecundity, its wastefulness, aggressiveness, ruthlessness, parasitism, and its violence. These qualities are not well-conveyed in textbooks.”

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However well-conveyed in Micro, Crichton’s view is incomplete. Direct experience with nature can breed dispositions other than mystery and uncertainty. Consider birders and hunters, who spend similar quality time in nature but whose dispositions run from “count it” to “kill it.” In contemporary science politics, there is something cranky and conservative about the primacy of direct experience, as Crichton’s well-publicized flirtations with climate-change skepticism show. If we couldn’t learn, for example, from stories informed by the accumulated wisdom of others, then Crichton’s entire project as novelist and filmmaker would be quixotic at best.

While some exposition is necessary in science fiction, much of it in Micro is clumsy. The graduate students talk to one another as pedants speak to the masses. “Nanigen Micro-Tech … specialized robots at the micro- and nano-scale,” spouts one. “That’s millimeters down to thousandths of a millimeter.” If a grad student actually stooped to defining micro- and nano- to other grad students, she would at least get it right: The nano-scale is generally regarded as one to one hundred nanometers, or one millionth to one ten-thousandth of a millimeter.

Pedantry aside, Micro and the most of Crichton’s work contribute to an important discussion about making policies for science and technology. Such science fiction—regardless of its setting in a future possibility, an alternate past, an alien culture, or, like Micro, a technologically tweaked present—speaks to the here and now. It can serve as technology assessment for the 99 percent who don’t get to do science or design and market products.

Next month marks the 12th anniversary of the speech by President Bill Clinton that launched the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, now a nearly $2 billion per year federal research effort. Nine years ago last month, Prey began to provoke among policymakers and scientists who advocate for nanotechnology what one Dutch colleague of mine calls the “fear of nano fear.” While shouting down the technical feasibility of Prey’s nano-bots, nano-advocates whispered that a big-screen version might derail what they were heralding as “the next industrial revolution.”

While literature, film, and art have a lot to say about how people respond to new science and technology, the public is often more discerning than elites imagine. When engaged in the right way, people can distinguish between research and potentially problematic applications and among better and worse applications. One way people do this is by focusing on what matters to them—for example, worrying more about the potential of nanotechnology to lead to job loss, rather than dangerous self-replicating nano-bots.

But Micro will not strike new fear into the hearts of techno-progressives, and neither will it raise a Luddite counter-revolution. Most likely, it will make people call the exterminator.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

David Guston is the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University and a professor of politics and global studies. He also directs the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU, which pursues a vision of the anticipatory governance of emerging technologies.